The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)



Set in Texarkana in the 1940s this film fictionalizes a real life murder spree called the Moonlight Murders by a hooded killer known as the Phantom Slayer. It’s a great premise and we already have lots of excellent band names to choose from here.

The film is done in a somewhat documentary style and focuses on the point in the investigation when a famous, well-reputed Texas Ranger comes to aid the local police. The first couple attacked survived to tell the story, and later on, another survivor (played by Dawn Wells in the movie, yes – Mary Ann) also described what occurred. They all noted a hooded killer who was systematic. He attacked couples on lonely roads and isolated places, terrorized them and shot them. In the film, the women were often tied up and bitten ferociously. The killer always struck at night and every three weeks like clockwork. And he is profiled as calm and intelligent, middle aged, a sexual sadist who seems like an ordinary citizen.

Director Charles B. Pierce creates some innovative slasher/crime thriller moments in this movie. The pace is good, jumping right into the first attack and the killer has this brutal almost supernatural quality. Like Jason or Michael Myers you cannot run faster than this fucker can walk and he is incredibly strong to boot. I dare say Pierce may have set the example in terms of slashers. He also creates very scary moments of anticipation, as kids who know the killer is out there are still sneaking off to remote places, yet jumping at every strange sound they hear, sometimes rightly so. I also think Pierce set a precedent for the horror investigation theme as there are moments that remind me of films like Zodiac, where the investigators are steeped in this dramatic but pensive puzzle, trying desperately to prevent another attack. It’s personal, you can feel their frustration and desire to protect the locals. And it doesn’t hurt that we have a pretty good cast of actors, including Ben Johnson and Andrew Prine (of Simon, King of the Witches.) Pierce himself plays a bumbling cop, rather humorously.

I really need a freakin’ mouthhole

But while this theme is compelling and the characters are empathetic there are also some terrible, artless moments, strikingly artless, in fact. I know there is an attempt here at docudrama, but there are scenes that look like some jackass just stuck a camera in the corner – really, really bad. And it’s said the ending lifted footage from Pierce’s earlier film, The Legend of Boggy Creek. These artless moments are in high contrast to some amazing moments, like what I call the shoe device. We never discover who the killer is but we know what his shoes look like and Pierce cleverly lets us spot him through town, in line for a movie, in a restaurant, stepping into a car. This adds to the terror, the killer is among us, and he has an advantage.

So all in all, great serial killer flick, but at times poorly executed. There is a sequel coming out, with the same name, but it takes place years later in Texarkana. I’m not a huge sequel fan, but I don’t mind this so much as the killer was NEVER found, and that seems like a compelling tale. I just hope if he is discovered in the sequel they ask him how he manages to stay so youthful after so many years.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s